While there’s nothing erotic about Robert Blake’s Kabuki nightmare in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, the director proved yet again that he is no stranger to dark sensuality — sometimes loveless and usually mind bogglingly bizarre. Bill Pullman is the jazz musician at the center of Lynch’s 1997 film, who is framed for the murder of his wife (Patricia Arquette) and shipped off to prison. While there, he shapeshifts into a young mechanic (Balthazar Getty) and embarks on an obsessive romance with a mobster’s mistress (also played by Arquette), natch. It’s an unlikely blend of lurid sexuality, innocent yearning, and twisted fantasy that only Lynch could pull off so easily.
The Piano Teacher
Michael Haneke is not a name you’d normally associate with erotic cinema, but the director’s 2001 film The Piano Teacher explores repressed sexuality, transgressive compulsion, and self-destruction in a way that exhilarates with its raw emotions. In the end, we realize how exhausting and cruel the journey truly is as Isabelle Huppert’s icy piano taskmaster wades through desperation and loneliness to fulfill her own desires and emotional emptiness.
The players of David Cronenberg’s Crash have brutal spasms instead of orgasms. They crave from a distance and balance disappointment with an addiction to the extreme. Car wrecks and sex abound in the 1996 film, which features one of the director’s sexiest mutations in Rosanna Arquette’s leg … orifice. Each character’s fetishistic obsession with metal and machine practically removes the need for a warm, human body, and in that kind of soulless want Cronenberg delivers something oddly exciting.
The House of Yes
Parker Posey’s unbalanced and smoldering sister with a love for her brother from the same mister is a suffocating and emotionally fascinating creation. Somehow Mark Waters made The House of Yes — in part about two siblings who have invented an unusual game to consummate their incestuous passion, in which they reenact the assassination of JFK — smartly terse and strangely alluring.
The Wayward Cloud
Taiwanese auteur Ming-liang Tsai’s The Wayward Cloud brings new meaning to the term “climactic scene.” It might take a special kind of weirdo to find the combination of porn, a watermelon fetish, deadpan humor, and musical numbers erotic — particularly because these are conduits and metaphors for some very unerotic things (alienation, namely) — but if you’re feeling adventurous … (Note: if you’ve never seen a Ming-liang Tsai film, you probably shouldn’t start with this one unless you really like watermelon.)
After watching James Spader’s eccentric and bloated Regional Manager Robert California in NBC’s The Office, it’s hard to think of the once brat pack heartthrob in a truly sexy way. Spader was never typically appealing despite his blonde-blue looks, however, and he lessens the smarmy quotient for a pleasantly quirkier character in Steven Shainberg’s Secretary. Spader’s relationship with the awkward Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) revolves in part around her submission and their spanking relationship, which isn’t what you’d expect it to be (at least according to what the movies have shown us about erotic power exchange). There’s shame, disgust, humor, and insecurity — which winds up being far more arousing thanks to its unabashed honesty.
The frustrated desires of a generation and the decade. “Maybe it was a dream then, you know … a very weird … bizarre … vivid… erotic … wet … detailed dream.”
While Ang Lee’s controlled and distant approach isn’t for everyone, it undoubtedly fits the bill for 1997’s The Ice Storm — about two families coming to grips with the rapidly changing political, social and sexual climate of the 1970s in the sterile Connecticut suburbs. Avoiding a satirical approach to the time period and opting for something far more earnest surrounding each character’s pathos and clumsy, conflicted sexuality — whether it be in adulterous trysts, swinging key parties, or pervy basement games of show-and-tell — Lee’s movie reveals the parallels between teenagers and their parents’ sexual exploration. It’s not a perfect translation (or an appealing one) of the era’s erotic charge, but there’s something in its cool glances and confused need that is momentarily striking.
Make no mistake: Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible is a harrowing movie that features a disturbing scene of sexual violence — and placing the film on our list in no way endorses such an act. We’re focusing on the relationship between real-life husband and wife, co-stars Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel. They’re also a couple in Noé’s unrelenting film, where sensual moments of beauty between the lovers are eventually replaced with atrocity. The emotional impact of the film’s difficult moments are magnified during the couple’s most intimate exchanges. There’s an unparalleled realness shared, which certainly feeds our voyeuristic desire to watch a real couple erotically engage on screen. See: the hubbub surrounding Tom and Nicole in Eyes Wide Shut.
Don’t Look Now
John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) tragically lose their daughter after she drowns on the family’s estate. What follows is a Jungian, phantasmagorical sequence of events that somewhat divides them — John the skeptic, and Laura the believer. Even their famous sex scene is intercut, continuing the film’s fractured sense of time and space. We’re not entirely sure if the couple is still as passionate about their relationship as they once were, or if they’re just trying to cope with the grief. Still, it’s an erotic moment that sets a mysterious tone for the rest of the film with its naturalistic depiction and emotional rawness.